In the month of Shravan, cities and towns of the Gangetic plains are inundated with people, dressed in orange, bearing saffron flags, marching to loud music, and carrying a stick sling with pots or bottles tied to either end.

They are fetching Ganga water and bringing  to the local Shiva temple, a ritual that marks the end of summer and beginning of monsoon. They are the Kanwariyas. Discover the Kanwar Yatra – Mythology of the pilgrimage of Lord Shiva’s Kanwariyas.

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HISTORY & HERITAGE: Pilgrimage, sacred places and holy Yatra


The word ‘Pilgrimage’ was derived from Latin word ‘Peregrinus‘, i.e. stranger, who visits a sacred place, devotees believe, they perceive spiritual enlightenment from pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage is the oldest concept or original art of traveling.

Visiting the sacred and holy places such as Lumbini or Bodhgaya for Buddhists, the river Ganga for Hindus, Jerusalem for Christians, and Mecca for Muslims induced modern tourism in the society.

Sacred places

The tradition of visiting sacred places is deeply rooted in India, and goes long back into history and heritage. The Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda talk of teerths or pilgrim spots, while the Mahabharata speaks of many such holy places spread across the sub-continent, and the teerths increase in number in the Puranas. A devout, visiting a teertha hopes to end the suffering from the unending cycles of life and death to reach Moksha, by the blessed aura of the sacred place.

Rana P.B. Singh. Pilgrimage in Hinduism: Historical context and modern perspectives. Figure 15 – Rana P.B. Singh

Holy Yatra

This holy yatra was taken by saints and sages in early days, which later got an addition of elderly people, who used to pilgrim every year.

INDIA: Kanwar Yatra - History and mythology of the pilgrimage of Lord Shiva’s Kanwariyas
Kanwar pilgrim, drawn by Montgomery, 1858.

Although there is little mention of the Kanwar as an organized festival in canonical texts, the phenomenon existed in the early nineteenth century when English travelers report seeing Kanwar pilgrims at many points during their journeys in the north Indian plains.

ETYMOLOGY : Kanwar or Kavad

The kavad, kanwar or kānvar (कांवड़) is a pole or bamboo with two water pots tied on either side. It is kept on the shoulder as the devotees walk toward their destination. Because the devotees carry this kanvars on their shoulders, hey are called Kanwariyas.

Kanwarias are devotees performing a ritual pilgrimage in which they walk the roads of India, clad in saffron, and carry ornately decorated canisters of the sacred water from the Ganges River to take back to Hindu temples in their hometowns.

Kanwar Yatra

The Kanwar is India’s largest annual religious pilgrimage. Millions of participants gather sacred water from the Ganga and carry it across hundreds of miles/km to dispense as offerings in Shiva shrines, as a gesture of thanksgiving.

The Kanwar Yatra काँवर यात्रा or कांवड़ यात्रा takes place during the Hindu month of ‘Shravan’ that is usually in the month of July to August, in Hindu calendar. There are two Kanwar Yatras in India: The Kanwar Yatra from Delhi to Uttarakant- Gangotri, Rishikesh or Haridwar and the  Kanwar Yatra from Sultanganj to Devghar in Bihar and Jharkhand.

Hundreds and thousands of people, from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, of young to old age, including woman and sometimes children, are participating in Kanwar Yatra, and Kanwar Mela. The offering is dedicated to Lord Shiva, often addressed as Bhola (Simple One) or Bhole Baba (Simple Grandfather/Father), Bhole can also mean Bholenath, i.e. Lord Shiva. The pilgrim, accordingly, is a bhola, and bhole!

हर हर महादेव का जयकारा है।

कांधे पर कावड़ और गंगा जल भरने हरिद्वार आना है ।


All Hail Lord Shiva!
O Lord Bholenath!
Please drive away my fear and protect me.
Everywhere Shiva
Everywhere Mother Ganga

The chant of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ and ‘bol bam’ can be heard reverberating in the distance as the kanwarias walk. Some sit on vehicles with speakers fitted to them that blare out various bhajans (religious songs) to which the kanwarias break into an occasional dance in order to bring out the religious fervor. Shiva the Mendicant, being their witness and guardian.

Indian Hindu Kanwarias, worshipers of the Hindu God Shiva, carry metal canisters filled with holy water from the Ganges River as they walk towards Padilla Mahadev temple, on the outskirts of Allahabad, India, Monday, June 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

Sanskrit scholar Mohananand Mishra offers references from scriptures, showing the practice was specific to Deoghar.

Kanwar may well be an Adivasi custom that spread around,”

he says, adding that the saffron colour was chosen because it discourages pride and desire and makes people calm.


INDIA: Kanvar Yatra - Mythology of the pilgrimage of Lord Shiva’s Kanwariyas

CALM – Ironic considering I have first heard and then seen the kanwarias thronging Rishikesh, Haridwar and most of all New Delhi, it’s anything but quiet. And facilitated by political parties: with their remixed music, hyper religiosity and nationalism…

But yet I can also see a different piety – that old, scraggly, loner kanwar limping barefoot. He shuns large gatherings and jukeboxes.

Who are the Kanwariyas?

Being in Delhi, I could have got the impression that the Kanwar Mela is mainly about traffic jams, and young rowdies who want to race on motorcycles through Delhi and up to Haridwar, if the police would let them. Heavy security measures are undertaken by the government and the traffic on Delhi – Haridwar national highway 58, is diverted for the period.

We can see numerous camps along the roads during the Yatra, where food, shelter, medical-aid and stands to hang the Kanvads, holding the Ganges water is provided. Everything organized by volunteers, like the local Kanwar Sanghs NGOs.

So we wait in Delhi for the saffron storm to pass. As we arrive in Rishikesh a week after the official end of the yatra, we still meet several groups of Kanwariyas – the shopkeepers are still selling orange shirts, trousers, shawls and water pots.

It’s a big business.

INDIA: Kanvar Yatra - Mythology of the pilgrimage of Lord Shiva’s Kanwariyas
Shiva and Parvati, his wife.

As Nakul Rana explains: People who have watched the kanwaria phenomenon grow since the 1980s have different explanations. Some say it became big in reaction to the insurgency in Punjab. Some point to a Hindu radicalization after the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid and the communal riots that ensued. Pretty much everybody agrees that devotional songs popularized by music-magnate Gulshan Kumar’s extremely low cost audio cassettes/ CD’s and videos also played a role in popularizing it.

The social sciences do not seem to offer anything either on the rise of the kanwaria. Suresh Kumar, a historian and sociologist at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, says the custom in Deoghar seems to have the humility of a folk tradition. In Haridwar, the same custom has acquired the trappings of a mass cultural event with its characteristic celebration and consumption.

Vikash Singh, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Montclair State University, spent about a year studying the Kanvar pilgrimage in India. His book Uprising of the Fools: Pilgrimage as Moral Protest in Contemporay India shows how religion today is not a retreat into tradition, but an alternative forum for recognition and resistance within a rampant global neoliberalism.

I see the Kanwar as an alternate field of performance and social recognition in the middle of exclusionary, often humiliating social conditions.

It offers relief from the “chores, struggles, banality, temptations, humiliations of everyday life” as “a sovereign time in the unmediated proximity of the absolute”.

Secular Indians considers the Kanwariyas as a nuisance and heave a sigh of relief when it is over. As they have gained notoriety in recent times as their movements are unregulated and tend to be goon-like, 

These devotees—called bhola, gullible or fools, and seen as miscreants by some Indians—are mostly young, destitute men, who have been left behind in the globalizing economy. But for these young men, the ordeal of the pilgrimage is no foolish pursuit, but a means to master their anxieties and attest their good faith in unfavorable social conditions. In identifying with Shiva, who is both Master of the World and yet a pathetic drunkard, participants demonstrate their own sovereignty and desirability despite their stigmatized status.

~ Vikash Singh Uprising of the Fools

INDIA: Kanvar Yatra - Mythology of the pilgrimage of Lord Shiva’s Kanwariyas

Someone who is praying for a sick child, or fulfilling a parent’s vow, someone who needs a job. These young men, with their lives of labour, hardship and precarity, claim to hear the call of Bhole Baba. It’s like an endurance test; those deemed losers and marginals by our social order are just trying to prove their worth in some other coin.

This annual deluge of devotion claims a few lives and scores get injured due to road accidents, quarrels and altercations. And yet the yatra, which sees crores of pilgrims take to the streets, is overwhelmingly peaceful.

Types of Kanwars

Jhoola: The Kanwar cannot be put on the ground but can be hanged.

Khadi: The Kanwars cannot keep the Kanwar on the ground nor they can hang it. When they take rest, some other Kanwar has to stand and hold the pole.

Baithi: The Kanwars can keep the Kanwar on the ground.

Dak: This is the toughest of all. Here, the Kanwariya has to run with the pole or Kanwar all the way and a team of relay runners follow him in trucks or bikes. While one kanwariya runs, the others of his team follow him in a vehicle.

Kanwar out of Rishikesh.

Guidelines for the Kanwaris

On the website we find this strict guidelines:

  • The kanwariyas renounce themselves of all worldly pleasures during this Yatra.
  • It is forbidden to use even a bed for sleeping or for relaxing.
  • Also they have to stay away from any articles made of leather.
  • It is  prohibited from consumption of alcohol and non vegetarian food.
  • They follow a strict vegetarian diet during this entire time of the Yatra.
  • It is said that serving the devotees is very auspicious.

HISTORY – MYTH: How the practice of offering water to Shiva began

INDIA: Mythology of Mother Ganga or the Ganges river
Neelkanth Mahadev Temple, Rishikesh – Samudra Manthan

A short drive from Hardwar, near Rishikesh there is the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. According to mythology, heritage and Hindu history, it was here that Lord Shiva consumed the venom [kaalkut] churned out of the milk ocean – the ‘ Samudra Manthan’ -, saving the world from evil, death and destruction. The poison turned his throat blue, so Shiva got his name Neelkanth, literally translating to ‘The Blue Throated One’. In Haridwar, Goddess Ganga descended when Lord Shiva released the mighty river from his hair.

MYTH : Samudra manthan or Churning of the Ocean of Milk

Devtas (Gods) and Asuras (Demons) churned the sea using Shivas snake in order to obtain Amrita, the nectar of immortality.

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.

According to Puranas the Samundra manthan took place in the month of Shravan or Saawan. Wonderful treasures were brought up from the depths of the ocean:

  1.  Chandra, the moon,
  2.  Parijata, a beautiful and fragrant tree now planted in Indra’s heaven,
  3.  the four-tusked elephant Airavata, Indra’s mount,
  4.  Kamadhenu, the cow of plenty,
  5.  Madira, the goddess of wine, who became Varuni, the wife of Varuna,
  6.  Kalpavriksha, the wish-fulfilling tree,
  7.  the Apsaras (celestial dancers),
  8.  the celestial horse Uccaihshravas,
  9.  the goddess Lakshmi, who became Vishnu’s wife,
  10.  Panchajanya, Vishnu’s conch,
  11.  Vishnu’s mace and magic bow,
  12.  various gems, and
  13. & 14. Dhanvantari, the physician of the gods, who rose up out of the waters carrying in his hands the supreme treasure, the amrita.

Along with the poison – halahal or kalkut. But the demons and the Gods were unsure of what to do with the poison, as it had the ability to destroy everything.

Lord Shiva then stored this poison in his throat, which became blue. Due to the venom, Lord Shiva’s body started to burn and thus in order to provide him relief from the burning, all the Gods and Demons started offering water from the holy Ganga to him.

This is how the practice of offering water to Shiva began. Carrying Ganga jal [Ganga water] and pouring it on a Shiva- linga is an important form of worship for Shivaites.

For many Hindus the world over, nothing is more holy or pure than Ganga jal, or water from the Ganges.

The devotees who pour Ganaga jal on the Shiva Lingam, appease the Lord. Lord Shiva, in return, cares for his devotees and blesses them with happiness.

INDIA: Kanvar Yatra - Mythology of the pilgrimage of Lord Shiva’s Kanwariyas
Shiva- Lingam and Yoni

Variant: Parvati Saves Lord Shiva from the Poison

Alarmed by the fast spreading of the poison, Goddess Parvati entered Lord Shiva’s throat in the form of a Mahavidya and controlled the poison to His throat. Thus, Lord Shiva became blue-throated and came to be known as Neelkanth, literally translating to The Blue Throated One’ and Ashutosh Shiva got a new name Neelkanth ‘God with blue throat’.

Tatoo Shiva with Ganga and moon.

Variant: The crescent moon on Shivas head

After drinking the poison, the throat of Lord Shiva turned blue (Neelkanth), and his body temperature began to rise rapidly. In an effort to cool down, he placed the moon on his head, as the moon has a cool and calming effect.

This cooling and calming energy of the moon is also said to control Lord Shiva’s temper.

The crescent moon on Lord Shiva’s forehead thus symbolizes the sacrifice he made for creation.

The crescent moon on his head is representative of a number of things – it represents the cyclical nature of the universe, is the nectar of life and can signify that one needs to keep his head calm even during adversities.

Variant: Raavan or Ravana saves Lord Shiva from the Poison

It is believed that the king of the demons Raavan, offered Shiva holy water from the Ganges, to lessen the effect of the poison.

Ravana, an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva brought the holy water of Ganga by using a Kanwar and poured it on Shiva’s Temple during the month of Saavan, thus releasing Shiva from the negative energy of the poison.

However, after some time the poison began to cause inflammation in his throat.

That’s when he found the Peepal Tree and meditated under it for about 60,000 years and established a holy olod called Pind there.

Hence, that’s how the sacred place where Lord Shiva meditated to get away with the pain from the poison in his throat, became the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple Rishikesh which is a main attraction among the devotees.

Lord Shiva is often depicted with Ma Ganga on his head, read here why:

MYTH : How Goddess Ganga came to earth

INDIA: Mythology of the Ganges river or Mother Ganga
Shiva with Ganga sitting on his hair

The most popular myth revolves around a king: Sagara, his sons, grandson (Ansuman) and the great grandson, Bhagirath.

Raja Sagar had sent out the horse as part of Ashwamedha yajna which was supposed to run uninterrupted and come back. This would have established the unchallenged supremacy of the king.

Lord Indra captured the horse and tied it near to where sage Kapil was sitting in meditation. The 60000 sons of the king rushed to rescue the horse and turned to ashes when sage Kapil opened his eyes in anger.

Raja Bhagirath, grandson of the king was determined to liberate the souls of his ancestors and did severe penance. He was advised by wise men that the only way for his ancestors to attain moksha (liberation from the cycle of life and death) was to bring the goddess Ganga to earth.

After years and years of penance, Ganga was pleased and agreed to come to earth. But she knew earth would not be able to hold her might. Bhagirath persevered and she only provided him with the solution to this problem.

If Lord Shiva agrees to hold her as she comes down from heaven, she may be released slowly to the earth.

Bhagirath continued his penance and pleased Lord Shiva who held Ganga in his jatas (dreadlocks).

He opened one strand of the jata and Ganga descended on to earth.

The place where she touched earth is known as Gangotri. As Ganga flowed past sage Kapil’s ashram, Bhagirath’s ancestors were liberated.

INDIA: Mythology of Mother Ganga or the Ganges river
Shiva releasing Ganga from his hair. Street art in Rishikesh.

Learn more: INDIA: Mythology of the Ganges river or Mother Ganga

Kanwar Yatra from Sultanganj to Devghar in Bihar and Jharkhand

However the Kanwar Yatra from Sultanganj to Devghar in Bihar and Jharkhand, respectively, is undertaken all year round. The Kanwariyas of Bihar who make the journey to Deogarh Baidyanath temple are less boisterous compared to their Delhi – Haridwar counterparts.

Their ritual also involves a bamboo stick carried as a sling over the shoulders, decorated with peacock feathers. No water pot is carried, but the principle remains the same —

carrying a burden of worldly life (that’s what the Kavad sling represents), from which devotees seek freedom.

In the South, and across the Tamil diaspora around the world, as far as Singapore and Malaysia, this is penance. The devotees carrying kavadi climb mountains and caves to meet Murugan and seek his blessings and his grace to be free of worldly fetters. The ritual is more austere and happens during Thaipusam, around the Tamil New Year.

MYTH: Origin of the kavadi ritual in Tamil Nadu – Or how Murugan, Idubam and Kavadi came to Palani

Sage Agastya wanted to take two hills – Sivagiri and Saktigiri – to his abode in the South and commissioned his asuran disciple Idumban to carry them. Idumban was one of the very few asuran survivors of the surāsuran war between Murugan’s forces and those of Surapadman. After surviving the war he had repented and became a devotee of Lord Murugan.

At this stage, Subrahmanya or Muruga had just been outwitted by His brother Ganesa in a contest for going around the world and He was still smarting over the matter. Ganapati had won the prized fruit (the Jnana-pazham) by simply going around His parents. Long after this, Subrahmanya came seating on His peacock to find that the prize had already been given away.

In anger, He vowed to leave His home and family and came down to Tiru Avinankudi at the Adivāram (meaning ‘foot of the Sivagiri Hill’). Siva pacified Him by saying that Subrahmanya Himself was the fruit (pazham) of all wisdom and knowledge. Hence the place was called Pazham-nee (‘You are the fruit’) or Palani. Later He withdrew to the hill and settled there as a recluse in peace and solitude.

Idumban bore the hills slung across his shoulders in the form of a kavadi, one on each side.

Idumban, the first Kavadi bearer

When he reached Palani and felt fatigued, he placed the kavadi down to take rest. When Idumban resumed his journey, he found that he could not lift the hill.

Muruga had made it impossible for Idumban to carry it. Upon the hilltop the great asuran spotted a little boy and demanded that he vacate at once so Idumban could proceed with his task. The boy, who was yet in a fighting mood, refused. In the fierce battle which ensued, Idumban was slain but was later restored to life.

Idumban belatedly recognized the boy as none other than his ista devata Murugan and prayed to Him that:

Whosoever carried on his shoulders the kavadi,

signifying the two hills and

visited the temple on a vow should be blessed; and

He should be given the privilege of standing sentinel at the entrance to the hill.

Hence at Palani there is the Idumban shrine half-way up the hill where every pilgrim is expected to offer obeisance to Idumban before entering the temple of Dandayudhapani Swami. Since then, pilgrims to Palani bring their offerings on their shoulders in a kavadi. The custom has spread from Palani to all Muruga shrines.

~ Source: Palani: The Hill Temple of Muruga (Madras, 1975) by Somalay for Arulmigu Dandayudhapani Swami Temple, Palani.

Learn more: INDIA: Thaipusam-Tamil Nadus Lord Murugan festival

For Shivaites, it is Lord Shiva that gave life to everyone in this world by drinking the destructive poison, this is why the Kanwar Yatra is dedicated to him and is considered very auspicious. Since then Shiva’s devotees carry forward this ritual of pouring Ganga water on the Shiv Lingas around the world during Saavan. Also ghee, milk, buttermilk and any water available is used.


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